Bill Belichick may have found Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski via the NFL draft, but he has struggled to find quality young players in recent years. From missing on early-round defensive backs to failing to find impact weapons, Belichick has utilized valuable draft capital on players who did not deliver. This week, the man in charge of the New England Patriots faces a $27 million test of his NFL draft skills in the form of Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller.
But can two of Belichick’s recent draft picks step up on Sunday? Or will Jon Gruden’s star weapon shine against a Patriots defense that just got shredded by Russell Wilson?
Bill Belichick has not shined in the NFL draft lately
2016-Present has been a whole bunch of WOOF.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) September 18, 2020
Traded Chandler Jones for Jonathan Cooper, Joe Thuney and Malcolm Mitchell in 2016. And then this…. pic.twitter.com/r9GfCyGesn
Bill Belichick’s strong work in the NFL draft has played a significant role in the Patriots capturing six Super Bowl championships across two decades. However, in recent years, New England has struggled to replenish its roster with young, cheap talent.
In 2016, Belichick selected Cyrus Jones with the team’s top pick. He played just 12 games for the Patriots before getting cut in 2018. While Joe Thuney has far outplayed his third-round pedigree, no other player from that 2016 draft class remains on the roster. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ four-man class from 2017 has provided little impact.
So far, the players Belichick picked in 2018 have mostly failed to deliver. Isaiah Wynn missed significant time in each of his first two seasons due to injury. Sony Michel has not provided the splash plays that made him a star at Georgia. Second-round pick Duke Dawson never played a down for the Patriots before getting traded.
Last year, the Patriots took N’Keal Harry with their top pick. He also had trouble staying healthy and never became the go-to weapon Tom Brady needed. However, Belichick does have two potential stars who can combat players like Darren Waller.
Kyle Dugger and Joejuan Williams offer intriguing potential
Joejuan Williams and Kyle Dugger joined the Patriots as second-round picks in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The former played cornerback at Vanderbilt. And at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, Williams brings excellent size to the position. Dugger also brings a sizable frame (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) to go along with elite athleticism.
Due to the team’s abundance of riches at corner, and given his combination of size and length, Williams started getting more reps at safety in training camp.
He acquitted himself well against Mike Geisceki in New England’s season-opening victory. Williams’ sticky coverage skills and physicality helped limit the Dolphins tight end to just three catches for 30 yards. Overall, his physical playing style and length make him an intriguing option to combat the NFL’s wealth of talented pass-catching tight ends.
In addition to Williams, the Patriots added another exciting prospect who can potentially shut down stars like Darren Waller. In April, Dugger became the 37th overall pick after a terrific career at Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II school in North Carolina.
With Pat Chung opting-out, the rookie has been thrust into the fire. And it has not taken him long to make an impact.
In Week 2, Dugger played 54% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. He finished the night with six tackles and a 30-yard kickoff return. His sideline-to-sideline speed, explosive tackling ability, and intelligence make Dugger a potential star in Bill Belichick’s defense.
Belichick faces a $27 million test of his NFL draft skills against the Raiders
Bill Belichick faces a $27 million test of his NFL draft skills on Sunday in the form of Raiders tight end Darren Waller. Last season, the former sixth-round pick signed a three-year, $27 million contract extension in October after finally showcasing his terrifying potential. Waller finished his breakout campaign with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns.
So far, Waller has not missed a beat. In the Raiders’ 34-24 victory against the New Orleans Saints, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound tight end totaled 12 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Now, he has a chance to inflict more damage against a Patriots secondary that got exposed on Sunday Night Football.
The Patriots will likely counter with some combination of Williams and Dugger. Both players possess the physical attributes needed to cover a big, athletic pass-catcher like Waller. Though Belichick does not exactly have a great history of hitting on second-round defensive backs, Williams and Dugger could break that mold.
And if the Patriots plan on entering Week 4 with a 2-1 record, they must shut down the Raiders’ $27 million star. If Williams and Dugger fail to answer the challenge, it will be a further indictment on Bill Belichick’s NFL draft skills given his string of early-round misses since 2016.
But should they succeed in limiting Darren Waller’s impact, it will be a major step forward for the Patriots’ pair of promising prospects.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.